Widely recognized as one of the most influential artists of the Late Victorian era, Frederic Leighton was a nineteenth century sculptor and painter who focused his attention on classical subjects of a historical and biblical nature. Favored by Queen Victoria from the time of his first major exhibition, Leighton’s works would prove an important contribution to this period, and the artist would be the first to be knighted as such, though this title would be short lived.
Born in Scarborough in 1830, Frederic Leighton was the son of an import/export merchant. He was educated in London at the University College School, followed by European art training under the tutelage of Vienna born Nazarene painter, Eduard von Steinle and Italian landscape artist, Giovanni Costa. Leighton studied art at Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence when he was 24. The following year – 1855 - he moved to Paris, where he would spend the next four years. The artist’s influences during this period include his associations with Millet, Corot, Ingres and Delacroix. Upon returning to London in 1860, Leighton was known to associate with Pre-Raphaelite painters; an avant-garde movement initiated by William Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais.
While in London, Frederic Leighton would begin to gain recognition for both sculpting and painting. He was chosen to design the tomb of noted Victorian era poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, at the request of her husband, Robert Browning. Leighton was credited with initiating an era in “New Sculpture” with his 1877 piece entitled Athlete Wrestling with a Python. The artist’s most important recognition in the Late Victorian art world came with the exhibition of his first major work, Cimbaue’s Celebrated Madonna is Carried in Procession through the Streets of Florence, which was purchased by Queen Victoria on opening day of exhibition at the Royal Academy. Leighton would eventually serve as president of the Royal Academy, from 1878-1896, after 14 years as an associate.
Queen Victoria would commission additional works from this artist in the form of The Leighton Frescoes. The South Court of Victoria and Albert’s museum served as home to these grand works, The Arts of Industry as Applied to War and The Arts of Industry as Applied to Peace.
Frederic Leighton was the only artist to be knighted for his contributions to high art in the Late Victorian era. This honor was bestowed upon him in Windsor in 1878. Leighton would later be given a title of nobility, Baron Leighton of Stretton, in the County of Shropshire. This entitlement would result in the shortest-lived peerage in British history, lasting just one day, as Leighton passed away the following day in 1896. Leighton had never married and had no children, therefore his title of Baron was extinguished; his home eventually turned into a museum honoring his artistic accomplishments throughout his distinguished career. Just a few years following the artist’s death, at the Paris Exhibition of 1900, it was Leighton’s works that would represent Britain.